|Mavis Staples stars as Mavis Staples in her documentary called “Mavis!” (Staples).|
“I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say… and that ain’t gonna happen.” That’s our introduction to Mavis Staples in the Jessica Edwards’ documentary “Mavis!” Mavis is a wildly compelling and gregarious 76-year-old with a voice that booms like thunder. The exclamation point that end caps the title of the film is so perfectly befitting—it’s a wonder she doesn’t simply spell her name that way; the title is screaming at you with a smile and a buoyancy that floats you through the film. Mavis is without a doubt, the living, breathing, heart-pumping definition of an exclamation point, radiating a charisma and earnestness so vivid and loud that it nearly knocks you out of your chair.
Jessica Edwards’ seamless and fluid direction not only allows but encourages audience participation with this film and with Mavis’ music. The man next to me in the theatre sang along to nearly every one of her songs; I remember he particularly enjoyed “I’ll Take You There” over the opening credits. Throughout the Douglas Theatre, where the Macon Film Festival premiere took place, there were thumpers and clappers and singers engaging with this film. “Mavis!” takes us back to south-side Chicago where Mavis grew up, weaves us through her early career with The Staple Singers and attempts at going solo, and expertly slingshots us up to present day. It’s a narrative chock-full of flashbacks and interviews and performances and music without becoming overabundant and distracted.
“Mavis!” skillfully and eagerly explores how gospel and folk and pop began to coalesce for the Staples family during the civil rights movement, and this musical evolution—as told by industry experts and musicians (with appearances Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Julian Bond) and Mavis herself—is fascinating. And the archival footage Edwards integrates into “Mavis!” is so seamless and smooth that you begin to wonder if this wasn’t the movie that Edwards was born to make. Edwards makes all the painstaking effort and research and editing look, well, effortless. It’s like all of these pieces, all these scenes from Mavis’ childhood and early career were perfect tributaries or distributaries for the film itself, for who Mavis is right now. They support the story without redirecting focus elsewhere.
One thing I found to be lacking, however, was an explanation for the family dynamic. Or not an explanation really, we’re not owed that; families are the way they are without any need to explain themselves, but I think we are owed some sort of exploration. The film doesn’t touch on Mavis’ mother, or what happens to her brother and one of her sisters. All we really hear about is Pops and Mavis and we don’t really learn too much about her mother, her brother Pervis, and her other sister Cleotha. Yvonne, Mavis’ second oldest sister, continues to sing with her to this day. To me, that was one of the sweeter moments of the film: when Mavis admits freely and with that open, gracious laugh of hers that she wouldn’t be able to do any of this without Yvonne, without the backbone of her father, without family and the inherent trust that comes with those relationships. Which, funnily enough, is the perfect segue to Jeff Tweedy.
Now, Jeff Tweedy (and in case you live under a rock [which, apparently, I do], Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer of Wilco) grew up on The Staples Singers. He loves this woman and her music and her history. In the film, Jeff claims to love only his wife more than he does Mavis. And it’s with Jeff that Mavis has had a reinvention or reinvigoration of her career. Jeff wanted to write and produce with her and convinced his label that it’d be a mistake not to sign her. A moment that was particularly lovely and endearing was when Jeff took one of Pops’ old, unfinished records and stripped it down to the barebones, retouched it ever-so-slightly, and then replayed the newer version for Mavis and her sister Yvonne. It was a quiet and sincere moment and highlighted how much Mavis’ legacy and music means not only to Jeff but her resounding affect on anyone she meets really. It was then that I really fell for Mavis and committed to discovering her music for myself once the screening was over.
There’s an ingenuity and a purity about Mavis, and it’s a sensation that you can feel, and that, to me, is the true beauty of this movie. I became surprisingly emotional during the film, leaving with tear-streaked cheeks and a smile so wide it reached my eyes. “Mavis!” is a gift; it’s an ode to music and to the life of the ever-compelling Mavis Staples. There’s a clip near the end of the film where Mavis wins a 2011 Grammy for her album “You Are Not Alone,” and when Mavis struts onto the stage she gives Pops endless praise and thanks for building the foundation for her life and career and she finishes her speech with “And I’m still working on the building.” A lovely woman and an endearing story. I give the Macon Film Festival’s opening night film “Mavis!” four out of five stars.
4 out of 5 stars.